So we’ve got a new Wimbledon Champion in waiting in the form of Emma Radacanu – but don’t get too excited, she doesn’t break the trend of the English Middle Class Norm. .
For a start, Radacanu grew up and started playing tennis in Canada, where social class is much less entrenched, and in any case her mother (Chinese) and farther (Romanian), neither of whom are from Britain originally, and both of whom work in Finance, are firmly part of the global middle class, who just happen to be resident in Britain ATM.
So she just carries on the middle-class tradition in British Tennis…. all the way back as far as I can remember until Tim Henman who was quintissentially middle class – home counties, dad a solicitor, privately educated, own tennis court in his back garden.
No, it seems that elite tennis just isn’t for the working classes.
It explores the history using a literature review and ethnography in one local tennis club, and it’s the later I find the most interesting.
The author found that members of the club would enforce a set of social norms beyond playing the game that worked to exclude non established members – for example it was frowned upon to not have a drink after a game, but in the bar established members rarely spoke to newer members.
Appropriate etiquette was also a big deal, meaning appropriate middle class norms of behaviour.
It’s noted that the grass courts were kept open for any member and their children to be able to play on during the summer, but these were heavily policed by senior middle class women, and children had the lowest status in the club, they were hardly encouraged to play.
The ethnography doesn’t extend to professional tennis, which may well be class-neutral, but the point is, tennis clubs are one of the few means whereby people without their own tennis courts at home are going to be able to get into tennis, and this local tennis club blocked ordinary children from being able to do this.
The primary function of this club seemed to be for middle class women to exercise their power and status over others, through ignoring and excluding those they deemed to be inferior, which was pretty much anyone not like them.
Possible explanations include less disruption to schooling, more parental pressure and higher prior attainment
Teachers in private schools awarded 70% of A-level entries A or A* grades in 2021, compared to just 45% for all exam entries across both state and private schools.
And the proportion of top grades awarded to candidates from private schools increased at a faster rate than for state schools – the A/ A* rate rose by 9% in 2021 compared to 2020 in private schools, but only by 6% elsewhere.
Why have private school candidates improved at a faster rate than state school candidates?
Private school students’ learning may have been less disrupted by school closures and forced isolation for individual students than was the case with state schools – private schools generally have smaller class sizes than state schools and so it would be easier for teachers to manage online learning and classroom learning at the same time.
Middle class parents may have been better able to home-school their children during school closures due to their higher levels of cultural capital.
Teachers in private schools may have been under more pressure from paying parents to inflate their children’s grades – this may not even be conscious, but parents are paying for a service, and if the teachers don’t deliver when they have the opportunity to do so (when THEY determine the grades, not the examiners), this could make the parents question what they are spending their money on?!?
The difference might also be due to the higher prior levels of learning among privately schooled students – state school students simply may have got further behind because of year 1 of disruption the year before, and this is an accumulative affect.
A recent 2019 study into the causes of violent crime in London found that the proportion of children under 20 living in poverty was the main factor correlated with levels youth violent crime in London Boroughs.
The study was conducted in 2019 by the Greater London Authority, and it took a public health approach to analysing the ’causes’ of increasing levels of youth violence in London from 2013-2017.
Defining and measuring violent crime
The study took a broad, multi agency approach to defining and measuring violent crime. ‘mapping’ their definitions of violent crimes here:
They also used many different sources to identify the upward trend in violent crime, such as hospital admissions for knife attacks, given that so many of these go unreported…
If you know anything about London, it’s already obvious from this chart that it’s the poorest areas such as Hackney and Croydon with the highest rates of youth violence, and the richest areas such as Chelsea with the lowest…
The main ’causes’ of youth violence
The study did a borough wide analysis, as the stats for violent crime were by borough, and found that all of the boroughs in the top ten for youth violent crime also had above average amounts of under 20 year olds living in poverty.
The main factors correlated with youth violence, in order of importance were as follows:
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is a useful update for social class and crime: poverty may only be one aspect of social class, but this study does suggest that more violent crime is committed by the working classes.
This study seems to offer broad support for Left Realism – deprivation and marginalisation register as being highly correlated with levels of youth violence.
Limitations of this study
Already, two years on, the data is four years old, as it only goes up 2019. In this online age, this should have been organised via an Artificial Intelligence so the data is updating automatically!
This only focuses on Youth violence, not crime more generally, so it is not representative of all crime.
Marxists might criticise the study as having narrow definitions of violence, focussing only on street violence and domestic violence, rather than the state-sponsored military violence instigated from the borough of Westminster.
This study might be a little biased – it seems to be coming from a Left Realist Perspective on crime, and (funnily enough) supports a Left Realist view of crime!
A recent study from the Social Mobility Commission found that only 18% Senior Civil Servants are from lower social class backgrounds, what we might traditionally call ‘working class’ backgrounds’, and this is down from 19% in 1967!
The majority of senior civil servants are from privileged, higher social economic backgrounds, many having benefited from an independent (private school) education.
The proportion of employees from low social economic backgrounds varies a lot according to role, region and department.
For example, 40% of those those working in operational roles, delivering services are from lower SEBs compared to just 19% working in policy (policy jobs tend to be more prestigious).
And only 12% of people working in the Treasury are from low SEBs compared to 45% working in ‘work and pensions’.
And 22% of of London based civil servants come from low SEBs compared to 48% working in the North East.
The report is based on a survey of 300 00 civil servants so is very representative and 100 hour long interviews to explore why there is such a class divide in the senior ranks.
Why are the working classes underrepresented in the senior civil service?
The title of report points to an explanation – it is called ‘Navigating the labyrinth’ for a reason.
The authors put it down to a number of ‘hidden rules’ surrounding career progression in the civil service which create cumulative barriers that make it more difficult for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to make it into the Civil Service.
For example, there are some roles within the civil service that act as career accelerators but getting into these roles depends on who you know, such as having access to already senior staff and ministers, and those from lower SEBs lack this kind of in-house social capital.
There are also dominant behavioural codes within the senior civil service, which those from higher SEBs are more familiar with, they come naturally to them, one aspect of this is ‘studied neutrality’
The report describes Studied neutrality as having three key dimensions:
a received pronunciation (RP) accent and style of speech
emotionally detachment and an understated self-presentation
prizing the display of in-depth knowledge for its own sake (and not directly related to work).
On the later point, some of the lower SEB interviewees in the study mentioned that there is a lot of talking in Latin, which many senior staff would break into sometimes during meetings, far from necessary from doing the job!
A final factor is that those from SEB backgrounds are more likely to specialise in a particular career path, which isn’t necessary for career progression.
Does the class divide in the senior civil service matter?
According to those in the senior service, no it doesn’t, because they see themselves as ‘neutral advisors’.
However, from a more Marxist point of view clearly it does! Just from a social justice perspective we have here a classic example of cultural capital blocking those from lower social backgrounds progressing to more senior positions, and those with cultural capital (from higher economic backgrounds) having an advantage.
And, despite claims to neutrality it’s unlikely that those from privileged backgrounds are going to advise on policies which promote more social justice and greater social mobility as that would be undermining the advantage they and their children have with the status quo!
The relationship between social class and educational achievement is one of the main topics within the sociology of education at A level.
The problem is, the government does not routinely collect statistics on the relationship between social class and educational achievement!
Instead, we have to reply on statistics which look at the relationship between household income and educational achievement, rather than the relationship between social class and educational achievement.
Household income is related to social class, but income alone does not tell us exactly which social class someone is from. Some parents might work in traditionally ‘working-class’ jobs which could be very well paid, such as the building trades; while other parents might be earning a limited amount of money working part-time in traditionally middle-class jobs – as private music teachers for example.
Also, income does not necessarily tell us about the cultural aspects of class – how well educated parents are or how much social and cultural capital they have, for example.
Thus you must remember that household income indicators are only proxies for social class, they may not show us precisely what a child’s social class background is.
Two sources we might use to to examine the relationship between social class and educational achievement are:
Free School Meal (FSM) achievement rates compare to non FSM achievement rates
Data on independent school results compared to government schools results.
The Achievement of Pupils Eligible for Free School Meals
Three is a 13.7% achievement gap in the ‘attainment 8’ scores of pupils eligible for Free School Meals compared to non-FSM pupils
In 2019 parents in households with a gross annual income of no more than £16190 were entitled to claim for Free School Meals. (Source).
This means that approximately the poorest 1/6th of households are eligible, so the above statistics are comparing the results of children from the poorest 1/6th of households with the richest 5/6ths all lumped into one.
One limitation with the above statistics is that if you were to stretch this comparison out and compare the poorest 1/6th with the next poorest 1/6th and so on up to the riches 1/6th, you would probably see much starker differences.
Independent School Results Compared to State Schools
If we look at the top 10 independent school results compared to the top 10 state schools, we see quite a difference in results.
In order to be able to pay the fees to get your children into an independent school, you have to be comfortably in the top 10% of households. There are a few scholarships for pupils from poorer households, but not in significant numbers!
Top 10 independent schools
Top 10 state schools
You can see a clear 8-9% difference in achievement in favour of the fee-paying independent schools.
One advantage of the above stats is that it’s much more likely that you’re seeing the solidly upper middle class in these schools, rather than this just being about income.
However, we are only talking about the the top 5-10% of the social class scale, we are not able to make social class comparisons more broadly.
If we use the above data, we can see there is a drastic difference in the achievement rates at the very top and the very bottom of the household income scales.
IF we think household income is a valid indicator of social class, we can also say there are huge social class differences in educational achievement based on the above statistics.
However, we don’t have systematic, annual data on the relationship between the vast majority of middle income households and educational achievement.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that “families are classified as materially deprived if they feel they cannot afford a certain number of items or activities, with greater weight assigned to items that most families already have.”
According to the IFS, between 8-15% of households are suffering from material deprivation, depending on what threshold you use. (If you want to know how the thresholds are worked, out click on the link above!).
In order to figure out how many households are suffering material deprivation, households are asked whether they can afford a number of items, such as the ones below. The more items a family can’t afford, and the higher up the list they appear in the chart below, the more likely a family is to be classified as ‘materially deprived’.
You can see that there is a downward trend in material deprivation between 2010-11 (careful, the chart above is over a longer time scale!)
The above study focuses on the trends in material deprivation as well as trends in both absolute and relative poverty. All three indicators are different ways of measuring poverty.
*A fuller definition of material deprivation is provided by the The OECD which defines Material deprivation as ‘the inability for individuals or households to afford those consumption goods and activities that are typical in a society at a given point in time, irrespective of people’s preferences with respect to these items.’ It’s work noting at this point that this is a relative rather than an absolute measurement of poverty.
I wrote this back in 2015, it’s my old version that I didn’t want to delete! It shows you some different, historical definitions/ measurement of material deprivation
The government’s material deprivation rate measures the proportion of the population that cannot afford at least four of the following items:
To pay their rent, mortgage, utility bills or loan repayments,
To keep their home adequately warm,
To face unexpected financial expenses,
To eat meat or protein regularly,
To go on holiday for a week once a year,
A television set,
A washing machine,
As can be seen from the statistics below, the number of people suffering from ‘severe’ material deprivation has remained stable in recent years, but the numbers of people struggling to pay for holidays and meet emergency expenses has increased.
This featured Louis Minchin interviewing some other celebrities and James Cracknell about the upcoming charity boat race in which four teams from BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky will be competing to raise money for mental health charities.
Now I know rowing is traditionally associated with independent schools, as are media celebrities, and I detected a distinct upper middle class twang going around the self-congratulatory interviews. This made me wonder what the class background of the boat race celebs was.
Given that 6-7% of the population is independently schooled, I did a quick trawl to figure out how over-represented (if at all) the upper middle classes are in this event.
A note on the methods
I simply looked up the celebs on Wikipedia, and about half had information about their schooling, in one case (Rachel Parris) the school had information on her.
NB there are some data gaps below, and I stopped at 50% as I’ve only got so many hours in the day….
Team BBC – at least 33% Independently schooled, 4* over-represented compared to the national average.
How are different social classes represented in the mainstream media?
This post looks at how the monarchy, the wealthy, the middle classes, working classes and benefits claimaints (‘the underclass’) are represented, focusing mainly on British television and newspaper coverage.
Generally speaking the ‘lower’ the social class, the more negative the media representations are, arguably because the mainstream media professionals disproportionately come from upper middle class backgrounds.
NB Social class is a tricky concept and you might like to review it here before continuing.
Representations of the Monarchy
According to Nairn (2019) after WWII the monarchy developed close ties with the media industry and worked with them to reinvent itself as ‘the royal family’ and since then they have been represented in the media as a family that are ‘like us but not like us’, and the narrative of their lives is presented as a soap opera, and is part of our day to day media fabric, which encourages us to identify with the royals.
Media representations of royalty also reinforce a sense of national identity: The Queen is the ultimate figure head of the country and royal events form part of our annual calendar, as well as the fact that royals are often in attendance at other national events, such as sporting events for example.
Media representations of wealth
The very wealthy are generally represented positively in the media, for example Alan Sugar and the Dragons on Dragons Den.
The constant media focus on the lifestyles of wealthy celebrities tends to glamourize such lifestyles, suggesting this is something we should all be aspiring to, rather than focusing on the injustice of how much these people are paid compared to ordinary people.
The Middle Classes
Middle class (higher income) families seem to be over-represented on day time T.V. especially – in shows such as homes under the hammer, escape to the country and antiques shows featuring typically very high wealth/ income families, and yet presenting them as ‘the norm’.
Most T.V. presenters are middle class, and so they are more likely to identify with middle class guests compared to working class guests, reinforcing the concerns of former as more worthy of attention.
Most journalists and editors are privately educated which means that the news agenda is framed from a middle class point of views.
The working classes
There are relatively few shows which focus on the reality of the lives of working class people.
Mainstream soaps tend to be the most watched representations of the working classes
Jones (2011) suggests the working classes are represented as feckless racists who hate immigration and multiculturalism – coverage of Brexit seems to offer support for this.
Benefits claimants (‘The Underlcass’)
Coverage tends to focus on the poverty of individuals rather than the structural features of society such as government policy which created the underclass.
Media coverage of the underclass is generally negative and they are often scapegoated for society’s problems. Benefits Street is a good example of this.
Please see this extended post for more details on how the media portray benefits claimants in stereotypical ways.
In this post I summarize some recent sociological research which suggests newspapers and ‘reality T.V. shows represent benefits claimants in a limited range of stereotypical ways, focusing on them as lazy, undeserving scroungers engaged in immoral, wreckless and criminal behaviour.
A lot of the research below also reminds us that media representations in no way reflect the reality of being unemployed and claiming benefits in the UK.
This research is relevant to the A-level sociology media topic: representations of social class.
Stereotypes of benefits claimants in newspaper articles
Baumberg et al’s (2012) research ‘Benefits Stigma in Britain’ analysed a database of 6,600 national press articles between 1995-2011.
Baumberg et al found an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on benefit fraud: 29% of news stories referenced fraud. In comparison the government’s own estimate is that a mere 0.7% of all benefits claims are fraudulent.
Common language used to describe benefits as ‘undeserving’ included:
Fraud and dishonesty (including those such as ‘faking illness’);
Dependency (including ‘underclass’ and ‘unemployable’);
non-reciprocity/lack of effort (e.g. ‘handouts’, ‘something for nothing’, ‘lazy’, ‘scrounger’); •
outsider status (e.g. ‘immigrant’, ‘obese’)
Language used to describe benefits claimants as ‘deserving’ included:
need (‘vulnerable’, ‘hard-pressed’);
disability (‘disabled’, ‘disability’).
In general, Tabloid newspapers such (especially The Sun) focused on representing benefits claimants as undeserving, while broadsheets such as The Guardian were more likely to focus on representing benefits claimants as ‘deserving’.
NB – The Sun and The Mail are Britain’s two most widely circulated newspapers.
Stigmatising benefits claimants
Finally, the study found an increase in articles about benefits claimants which focused on the following stigmatising themes:
‘shouldn’t be claiming’ (for reasons other than fraud)
never worked/hasn’t worked for a very long time
large families on benefits
bad parenting/antisocial behaviour of families on benefits
claimants better off on benefits than if they were working
claimants better off than workers
immigrants claiming benefits
More neutral/ positive themes included:
compulsion of claimants (e.g. workfare, benefit conditionality)
cuts to benefits
As with the themes of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, Tabloids produced more stigmatising content than the the broadsheets.
Stereotypes of benefits claimants in reality T.V. shows
The number of such shows has exploded in recent years, but while they claim to provide and honest ‘realistic’ insight into lives of Britain’s benefit claimants and those living in poverty, Patrick and others argue they are sensationalised and present stereotypical representations of those on welfare.
If we look at the opening scenes for the first series of Benefits Street for example, these featured:
sofas on the pavement,
men on streets drinking cans of lager,
women smoking cigarettes on their doorsteps.
Overall such shows present benefits claimants as lazy shirkers who don’t want to work, and as people who are different to the hard-working majority.
Such shows emphasize the difference between the working majority (‘us’) and the workless minority (‘them’) and invites us to identify ourselves against benefits claimants, and possibly to see claiming benefits as something which is a choice, long term and morally wrong, rather than as something which is a necessity, usually a short term stop-gap before a return work.
This interview with Jordan, who took feature in Benefits Britain as a claimant offers an insight into how negative representations of the unemployed are socially constructed by media professionals:
Jordan claims that he usually keeps his flat tidy, but was told by the producers to deliberately not tidy it up before they came round to shoot, because it would make people feel more sorry for him.
He also claims that the media crew bought alcohol and cigarettes for the shoot, and told the ‘claimants’ that if they didn’t consume them before the shoot was over they’d take them away again, which led to lots of images of the cast drinking and smoking, when Jordan claims he would only usually do this on special occasions.
Relevance of this to A-level Sociology/ Media studies….
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that newspapers and ‘reality’ T.V. present you with the reality of ‘life on benefits’ – in fact both of these sources present highly sensationalised accounts of what it’s like to actually be unemployed.
All of the above research is based on careful content analysis which picks out the main ways in which benefits claimants are stereotyped and thus represented in a limited way.
This post has only focused on representations, forthcoming posts will focus on why mainstream media professionals choose to represent benefits claimants in negative, stereotypical ways.
Michael Buerk recently lamented the retirement of John Humphrys from Radio Four’s today programme – because his departure means one less working class voice on the BBC: once Humphrys goes all of the remaining Today presenters will have been privately educated.
In fact Buerk suggests that Humphrys further represents an older generation of media presenters: he broke into media in a more meritocratic age, when it was possible for ordinary working class kids to be socially mobile and get ‘middle class jobs’.
Today it seems this is much harder, and there’s a lot of evidence that our media companies are stuffed full of middle class media professionals, with the working classes woefully underrepresented behind the scenes.
67% of Channel 4 staff had parents who worked at professional or managerial level and only 9% identify themselves as coming from a working class background.
The BBC came out best, but still had 61% of staff reporting they were from upper middle class backgrounds. 17% of staff and 25% of BBC management when to private school, well above the 7% for the population as a whole.
ITV only provided data for those in senior management roles, so are probably even more upper-middle class than Channel 4.
OFCOM has criticized the BBC for being too white, middle-aged and middle-class, and being out of touch with a wide tranche of the UK population.
Stef McGovern argues that BBC needs to do more to recruit people from working class backgrounds, and she even thinks that she’s paid less because she’s not posh, suggesting that people from wealthy backgrounds such as Fiona Bruce are able to negotiate better pay deals, at least partly because of their class.
Why are media professionals mainly upper middle class?
This brief article from the inews suggests that part of the reason the BBC and Channel 4 are so middle class is because they are both based in London, as are 2/3rds of media jobs. It also reminds us that to break into a job in media, people typically have to do long internships for very low pay, which is only possible with several months of parental support, which is much easier for upper middle class parents with 6 figure salaries to be able to afford.
According to a recent OFCOM report on how people of different socio-economic backgrounds are portrayed in the BBC:
working class people generally feel as low there are fewer representations of them than there are of the middle classes.
One programmer from the BBC even said that: “Too often people [from working class backgrounds] are merely the subject of documentaries made by white middle-class people for white middle-class people”.
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